Vickroy: Longtime hotel employee leaves the way she came in: with a smile
BY DONNA VICKROY email@example.com Twitter: @dvickroy April 10, 2013 4:48PM
Geri Hoffman stands at the hostess station inside Allgauer's Restaurant where she has welcomed guests during her 40 years of working at the DoubleTree by Hilton in Alsip, Illinois, Monday, April 8, 2013. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
Updated: May 12, 2013 6:33AM
In the early 1970s, when the south suburbs were marked with wide-open spaces and Interstate 294 was young, a newly divorced mother of five walked over to the Crouching Lion hotel in Alsip and applied for a job.
“I didn’t have a car at the time,” Geri Hoffman said. And the new hotel, with its orange carpeting inside and giant cement lions outside, was within walking distance of her Crestwood home. It was built to accommodate interstate travelers and would-be overnight guests in the south suburbs.
Now, as she looks back on her 40-plus years of greeting restaurant customers, remembering their favorite tables and handling their special requests, Hoffman can’t help but shed a tear or two over her recent retirement.
“If I didn’t have health issues, I’d keep on working,” she said. “I loved it.”
And, by all accounts, it loved her back.
At Hoffman’s retirement party last week, longtime customers of the Lion — which later became the Holiday Inn and then a Radisson before its current brand, DoubleTree by Hilton — feted her with kind words and commemorative plaques.
Mike Gauer, of Seneca Petroleum, thanked her for her “million-dollar smile.”
Members of the Southland Convention and Visitors Bureau congratulated her on her retirement and her many years of service, all delivered with the “friendliest of smiles.”
And Alsip Mayor Patrick Kitching, whom Hoffman said liked the corner booth for its privacy when lunching with colleagues, presented her with a congratulatory plaque on behalf of the village.
A fresh start
Hoffman, 74, was a single mom of five when she landed a job in the coffee shop of the Crouching Lion. Its owner’s father was a printer, and the hotel was decorated with old typewriters and a press.
Later, after it became the Holiday Inn and a restaurant was added, Hoffman became a server and learned quickly that customers appreciate the details. Those lessons served her well later after she was promoted to hostess.
“They want you to smile and to remember them,” she said. “And they like it when you remember what they like and don’t like.”
When she knew that members of the chamber of commerce were coming for lunch, Hoffman saved their favorite table.
The Holiday Inn also added a bar and banquet rooms. During the ’70s, the bar featured live bands. Revelers would spill out into the hotel lobby.
Hoffman used to pitch in for Saturday night weddings and other special events.
“I couldn’t do that for long. Once the kids got older, I had to be home on Saturday nights, you know,” she said.
Her daughter, Cynthia Apter, a mother of five herself, says Hoffman never missed her children’s games or activities, and there were plenty of them.
“Baseball, football, cheerleading,” Hoffman said. “They were busy.”
As they got older, the kids would sometimes help out at the hotel, checking coats.
“We’d do our homework and wait for tips,” Apter said.
The best part of having a mom who worked at a hotel, Apter said, was the company-sponsored family picnic, when employees could bring their spouses and children in to enjoy the indoor swimming pool.
But there were challenges as well, Hoffman said.
One time she had to spend the night at the hotel after a snowstorm blocked the roads. She only lives five minutes away by car, but it might as well have been 50 once the snow began drifting.
“That night I was so worried about my kids at home,” she said.
During the blizzard of 2011, Hoffman already was home when the snow began to fall. By the next morning, it was clear she wouldn’t be able to make it in to work. So general manager Jacob Washlow, who’d spent the night at the hotel because of the dire forecast, fired up his four-wheel Jeep and came and got her.
“I had the key to the cash register and the safe,” Hoffman said.
Mother’s Day and Easter brought out huge crowds to enjoy the special holiday buffet served in the restaurant, which was Printmakers under Holiday Inn ownership and is now called Allgauer’s.
Not just a job, a family
Hoffman isn’t the only longtimer at the DoubleTree. Kelly Sujka started at the front desk 27 years ago. Two housekeepers have been there 30 years. And Kay Bentley has 38 years under her belt working the front desk.
Together, the ladies look back and chuckle.
“We had our share of nooners,” Bentley said.
“Oh, yes, we did,” Hoffman said with a smile. “And their secretaries.”
Bentley said, “They didn’t want to be in the lobby too long because they were from the area, if you know what I mean.”
The women also remember when the Auto Auction was located at 123rd Street and Cicero Avenue.
Bob Sullivan has been driving in from Indiana to buy cars, first at the auction and now at various area dealerships, for 30 years. He is a regular at the hotel. He missed her goodbye party but sent a note wishing her the best.
There are lots of other regulars as well, including the “card ladies,” a group of 12 women who meet at Allgauer’s every other Wednesday to play pinochle.
“We set up three tables for them,” Hoffman said.
Then there are the celebrities.
When the nearby Condesa Del Mar was in its prime, it was not unusual for its performers to stay at the hotel. Tony Bennett and Dean Martin have been there.
More recent, Alice Cooper spent the night. And Willie Nelson is a regular, sort of.
“His crew and his family sleep in the hotel. Willie stays in his bus in the parking lot,” Bentley said. “We’d see him in the mornings, riding his bike.”
Hoffman has been a staple in an industry built on travel and movement. She has been a constant employee in an operation that has changed hands many times.
“I guess I come with the building,” she said with a laugh.
Many of her customers continue to patronize the hotel and restaurant for that very reason, she said.
“They tell us they appreciate familiar faces,” she said.
A familiar face is a good way to describe Hoffman. She is among the residents who have been living in Crestwood the longest.
“I’ve been in the village for 48 years,” she said.
Bentley said, “Geri is like everyone’s grandmother.”